What happens when a writer nervous of bees dons the hat and gloves to venture on a beekeeping course in Wales?
I’m not that fond of bees. The combination of having my heart broken by the film My Girl in early childhood (a sad bee-related ending for a young and still-sweet Macaulay Culkin) and an unfortunate incident in Tanzania, where I disturbed a gigantic nest of African honeybees (believe me a remote island in the middle of Lake Victoria is the last place you want to be while you “wait and see” if you’re allergic to bee stings), has not left me with the greatest affection for the creatures.
So when my editor asked if I’d like to do a course in beekeeping, at first I hesitated. But it’s ridiculous to be afraid of bees. The course is on Kate Humble’s farm in the Wye Valley; a day-long Sustainable Beekeeping course, where we will be told all about honeybees, how they live, the different hives you can use as well as other bits of bee paraphernalia, with expert instructors Nicola Bradbear and Janet Lowore from Bees for Development, an international charity based in nearby Monmouth.
As I head up to the farm I feel as if a hive of bees are actually circulating in my stomach. The other people on the course have signed up for a variety of reasons. A lady from Woking already keeps chickens and is thinking about adding bees to her smallholding. One poor chap has tried keeping bees and already lost two colonies; one to pesticides, and one to the varroa mite. And then there is the bloke who has been dragged along by his wife: “I got stung once and I’m here for revenge,” he says. I think that he is probably onto something.
The number of beekeepers has increased dramatically since 2007. “At the time there was a move afoot for the government to cut funding to the National Bee Unit,” says Gill Maclean from the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA). “We launched a big campaign highlighting this as a threat. In the end, the funding was not cut, but it also highlighted the importance of beekeepers and the number of BBKA members more than doubled.” There are now around 24,000 amateur beekeepers registered with the BBKA.
The rise comes against a background of growing international concern about the health of our global bee population. In the last decade beekeepers in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and South America have reported horrifying stories of vanishing colonies; some commercial beekeepers have reported losses of up to 90% since the end of 2006, and no one could explain why. In 2007, Lord Rooker predicted the demise of the honeybee in Britain within a decade. In her book A World without Bees, Alison Benjamin explains the “economic and ecological disaster” we would face if bee colonies were to collapse completely. There would obviously be no honey and no beeswax, but we would also be without fruit (except for pineapples and bananas), vegetables, beef, pork, dairy, and coffee. Vital ingredients used to make medicines for arrhythmia and skin cancers would be lost, and the textile industry would face a scarcity or the entire disappearance of cotton and denim. That’s not to mention the environmental impact, loss of jobs, and loss of biodiversity.
The exact cause of the problem has been hotly disputed. The varroa mite – a virus-carrying parasite that preys on bees – is certainly partly to blame; it has been wiping out colonies worldwide for more than fifty years. And last week, new research by Harvard scientists found that neonicotinoids – a type of insecticide – are likely to be the main cause of what is termed colony collapse disorder. As the course leaders explain, practically everything we eat depends on pollination: “We all either eat plants or we’re eating animals which have eaten plants,” explains Nicola. “The plant can’t walk over and mate with another plant – it has to have that agent of transport. Of course we know that wind is also an agent of transfer but insects are very important and amongst those insects, bees are very, very important.”
After a couple of hours in the classroom learning about honeybees and the inner workings of a colony, it’s time to get kitted out in the customary attire. Dressed in a white jacket, netted hood and impenetrable gloves, and feeling more like a bumbling fencer than a confident apiarist, we wind our way around clusters of farm buildings to meet the bees. My nerves are jangling, but I try to make light of the less-than-comforting warnings from the instructors as we walk.
“Bees like to walk up your sleeves and up your trouser legs, so elastic bands are good if you have them.” I don’t. “If a bee does for some reason get in your hood, don’t panic. Walk away from the hive, open up your hood and just let it fly out.” Yeah, right. With that, we come to the hive at the edge of the barn.
I have been expecting a literal hive of activity, with the gentle sounds of buzzing and an overwhelming aroma of honey, but Wales is playing up to its meteorological stereotype that day and the gusts of wind and steady drizzle are keeping the bees firmly indoors. It takes a few warning puffs of sweet-smelling smoke, and then Nicola starts opening up one of Gareth Baker’s commercial beehives, pulling out frames laden with honeycomb and hundreds of bees, and passing them around for us to hold and inspect. The bees are deceptively silent, so much so that I don’t immediately notice them landing on my hands, or my arms, or my shoulders. My heart picks up a few beats, and then a few more, but I find myself offering to hold one of the frames.
The thing that is preoccupying me is the warning that bees release pheromones when they die. Those pheromones warn the rest of the colony that an attacker is in their midst, and that’s when the bees start to sting. Not wanting to end up like poor little Macaulay, I step forward cautiously and fumble through my oversized yellow rubber gloves, anxious to get a good grip on the frame without squishing a single bee. I’m not exactly terrified, but my heart is pounding in my chest. I fight an overwhelming urge to throw the frame to the ground and run away, as it vibrates gently under the weight of the bees working on the honeycomb. I manage to hold the frame for a couple of minutes before hastily passing it on to someone else.
But my heart is slowing down, and the fascination of the bees is getting to work on me. They are such extraordinary creatures; it’s no wonder they’ve been the source of ardent admiration for millennia. Their work ethic alone puts the most conscientious of us to shame.
“The worker bees build the wax comb, they collect the food – the pollen and nectar – in order to feed the colony. They keep the inside of the nest warm, they clean it, they guard it, they take out debris and dead bodies – they’re constantly working,” explains Janet. The female worker bees act as the thermoregulatory system for the hive too, keeping it at a constant 35C; collecting and distributing water if it’s too hot and gathering together to generate body heat if it’s too cold. They never sleep. No time.
And as for reproducing … once in her lifetime a queen bee will convene with around a dozen drones (male bees) from different colonies. They meet 15 to 20 metres above the ground in a drone congregation area for what can only be described as a bee orgy. She buzzes around collecting bee sperm then flies back to her hive where she spends the next three to four years laying eggs – 2,000 a day in peak periods – from that one blissful, hazy sex-fest of an afternoon.
As the gentle humming casts its spell, I begin to think that beekeeping could be quite a therapeutic hobby. I can picture myself on a warm summer day, sitting in the garden, lulled into tranquility by the soft sounds of buzzing as the worker bees fly in and out the hive, hopping from one flower to another. You could argue that it would even save a bit of money by harvesting honey and making beeswax candles. But that, possibly, is missing the point.
“When it comes to bees, the value of honey and the value of beeswax is just nothing, nothing, nothing, compared to the value of pollination,” says Nicola. “If you have bees in your garden, your bees are pollinating the ecology where you live, and any honey you get is just a bonus, a minor bonus actually. You have bees and they’re pollinating your habitat and that’s far, far more important.”
This article first appeared on the Guardian on 13 May 2014.